The Basic Income Will Make Sense When People Learn to Value Their Unpaid Work

10/06/2016 15:40 | Updated 10 June 2016

Which is more remarkable - that 77% of Swiss voters rejected proposals for a basic income in a referendum last weekend, or that 23% voted in favour? Admittedly the turnout was low, probably because there was little realistic chance of the proposal being passed, but the fact remains that nearly a quarter of the votes were in support of a radical, socially progressive idea of which nobody much was talking until very recently.

A well-executed basic income policy fixes so many socio-economic issues - both present and looming - that it's tempting to think not if, but when. The main barrier, however, may not be demonstrating effectiveness, or even affordability, but overcoming public perception. People are rightly wary of "something for nothing" offers, including the idea that people should be 'paid' without committing to 'work'.

Such perceptions matter, which is why 'paid' and 'work' are in inverted commas in the previous sentence. We assume that work comes first: once performed, it is valued and remunerated accordingly. In reality, however, money comes first: access to work is filtered through employers, who have the necessary money to invest in a workforce. This is why political rhetoric focuses so obsessively on businesses 'creating' jobs and people 'looking for' work.

This need to 'find work', however, creates an artificial bottleneck that limits people's productive capacity. Like a litter of piglets crawling over each other to get hold of a nipple, people are only enabled to contribute economically if they can find a point of access to the money system.

If access to money is what makes economic activity possible, why make it so hard? That's the premise of the basic income, which solves the problem by giving everybody an allowance of the money in the system. This frees up their autonomous capacity to work, without being dependent on the system to fit them in.

Implicit in this is a reassessment of the way in which we measure economic value. The unpaid economy in the UK is well over half the size of the money economy, and probably much bigger than that in terms of its usefulness, since unpaid work that people choose to do is more likely to result in something that is genuinely wanted.

The Basic income acknowledges this by relegating money from the status of wealth to that of wealth-facilitator. After all, unpaid work also requires money: it needs tools, vehicles, materials, land, accommodation, etc., just as any work does. If the only route to that money is through payment, the amount of economic value that can be created through unpaid work is unnecessarily

To put that in real terms: a person busy with paid work may be able to afford what is needed to cook wholesome meals, grow vegetables, look after their own children, write novels, learn a new skill, etc., but is unlikely to have the time. A person without work has the time, but may lack the financial resources unless somebody else is able to provide them.

If that busy worker is well paid, they will buy the meals, vegetables, childcare, etc. that they need. In the low wage, zero hours economy, however, paid work consumes valuable time without producing enough to buy the resources that are needed. Similarly, people required to search interminably for work in return for meagre state 'benefits' have neither time nor sufficient money to cater directly for their own needs.

Work, essentially, is exactly that - people catering for their own needs. Giving people access to money through the basic income will generate big increases in productive economic activity, but we won't know that unless we measure it. Currently we don't: GDP, which is our measure of economic success, is only interested in paid activity, so a large amount of useful work is systematically ignored.

Changing public perceptions about the basic income, therefore, depends upon changing our understanding of useful work and the way that we measure it. Since all of us do unpaid work, and none of us could survive without doing it, that ought not to be too hard.

The crucial point is this. The basic income is not paying people for their otherwise unpaid work: it is providing them with the financial investment that makes it possible for them to do it. Investment in people is not "something for nothing", but sound economic practice. It is also what people deserve.